Are we speaking the same ecological language?

24 02 2014

group communicationThe simple answer to that question is ‘no bloody way’.

In the last few days a paper we’ve been working on for years has just appeared online, and lead author Salvador Herrando-Pérez (no stranger to has put together a beautiful little post about why we think it’s so important. If heeded, our suggestions could transform ecology and place it on the scientific pedestal it deserves to occupy.


The ecological literature can sound like a multilingual chorus when authors ignore the genesis of ecological concepts and terms in their publications under the terminologically lenient editorial policy of ecological journals. As a first step towards regulating this situation, we have just proposed the bases of a convention of ecological nomenclature (1) as a substantial element of ecological synthesis. Below we expose the rationale of this proposal, and summarise the elements of the convention.

In the 2000s, I spent quite a bit of time writing stories and doing storytelling performance. I have always had a passion for words, and was able to entertain this passion in the confines of science when in 2007 I embarked on a PhD with the goal of doing a conceptual and macro ecological revision of the once-upon-a-time controversial concept of density dependence (DD). It took me several months of reading to realise that many of the problems I then experienced to understand the literature were caused by a formidable jargon comprising > 50 terms for naming only 4 DD types, and many associated concepts in population dynamics (like boundedness, determination, limitation, persistence, regulation, spreading the risk, stabilisation, vagueness). After four years of further readings (and four manuscript rejections along the way), that realisation turned into a paper (2) in which we (including Corey, Barry Brook and Steven Delean as partners in crime) showed that DD jargon has thrived not only because terminology tracks and genuinely expands in response to conceptual development and refinement (e.g., 3 for Allee effects), but many population ecologists work/ed isolated within their areas of expertise, and use/d words to express opinion more often than facts – for example see references 4 and 5, or the (classic and sometimes indigestible) exchanges between Alexander Nicholson and Herbert Andrewartha (6-9).

The use of terminology in the ecological literature is governed by a silent rule (silent because it is written no where, and rule because everyone appears to follow it) in that you write a paper and enjoy the freedom to re-define a concept, to coin a new term, or to use a term without defining it. This rule favours individualistic writing styles and propels the proliferation of synonymy and polysemy, albeit coming at the expense of general understanding.

Semantic uncertainty (10) emerges because (explicit or implicit) definitions and terms encapsulating any given concept vary across (i) individual papers, as illustrated by terminological reviews (e.g., 11, 12), (ii) glossaries promoted by journals (e.g., in Trends in Ecology and Evolution) and books (e.g., 13), (iii) dictionaries (which are proliferating, for example, for botany, conservation biology, ecology, fungi, herpetology), and (iv) languages – for English is the current norm but only 1 among > 6000 living languages (14) that represent as many potential sources of literature, hence terms. This uncertainty is now escalating given the growing rate of production of primary literature in the full range of the biological sciences (15) through new journals and more papers per journal every year. In a former blog post (see Boxes 1 and 2 therein), I provide some tentative rules of thumb for minimising terminological uncertainty in writing scientific papers.

Polysemy and synonymy are certainly indicative of topics that need further elaboration. However, we challenge the view that they prompt the progress of ecology (16). Many authors have demonstrated that long-standing polemics can be abated or attenuated through objective definitions and vocabularies (17, 18), in the absence of which students and early-career researchers [who are the majority of the research task force (19)] are challenged to grasp the meaning of concepts key to their fields of research (20).

Terminological confusion cascades into important aspects of the modern praxis of ecological research, whereby (i) new, sexy terminology might disregard similar or identical concepts and hypotheses already formulated (and distinctively worded) in old literature and so result in redundant research (21), (ii) inconsistent terminology complicates key-word searches in bibliographic databases [Google Scholar, Web of Science, etc.] and (iii) poses a problem in selecting study cases and data for meta-analyses (22, 23), (iv) terminology can be massaged (with arguable rigour) according to expected audiences and agendas like funding seeking (24), (v) contrasting classification categories of ecological concepts in foreign schools of thought (and language) can handicap the transnational application of environmental policies (25, 26), and (vi) semantic uncertainty can further obstruct the communication of science to policy makers, the general public and the media (27-29), particularly so for trendy themes like climate change (30, 31).

The convention of ecological nomenclature (CEN) we propose should be built on six core components:

  1. Policy = a list of articles describing the rationale, modus operandi and management of the CEN – we provide a skeleton of this policy in our paper (1) as Supplementary Material (see another instance for biogeography in reference 32).
  2. Endorsement = CEN should be endorsed by a transnational institution like the International Association for Ecology and/or a multilateral panel representing several societies with international membership (e.g., BES, EEF, ESA).
  3. Management = CEN should be managed by an advisory expert committee across the different sub-disciplines of ecology (behaviour, chemistry, communities, ecosystems, evolution, landscapes, physiology, populations; sensu reference 33).
  4. Repository = CEN would ultimately produce a unique, updateable, open-access repository of terms proposed, cited and peer-reviewed by the ecological community. The process of peer-review of terms could be undertaken in CEN-endorsed journals through a section devoted to terminological review or, ideally, in a new Journal of Ecological Nomenclature.
  5. Constrained vocabularies = CEN should aim to review every ecological concept, but also feed from available constrained vocabularies of names for physical entities like places (GeoLocate, GAD), animals or plants.
  6. Compliance = Most importantly, the enforcement of CEN as the terminological standard in ecology would require that the use of CEN-endorsed terms (and definitions) be a pre-requisite for manuscript acceptance in any ecological journal.

Ours is not a radical suggestion. A form of CEN was once attempted by the Ecological Society of America (34, 35), nomenclature conventions stand as self-evident tools in well-established scientific disciplines such as astronomy [as through The Gazetteer] or chemistry [Gold Book], and the unique registration of names prior to universal acceptance seems a must, even in highly regulated nomenclature platforms like those of taxonomy (36) [The Global Biodiversity Information Facility] and genetics (37) [International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration]. Overall, CEN aligns with ongoing calls for data globalisation (38, 39) [DataOne, KNB, EML, TDWG] and ecological synthesis (21, 22, 40, 41), which endeavour to make the most of available knowledge and resources for tackling the pressing environmental challenges facing our troubled world.

Salvador Herrando-Pérez


  1. S. Herrando-Pérez, B. W. Brook, C. J. A. Bradshaw, Ecology needs a convention of nomenclature. Bioscience,  (2014, 10.1093/biosci/biu013).
  2. S. Herrando-Pérez, S. Delean, B. W. Brook, C. J. A. Bradshaw, Density dependence: an ecological Tower of Babel. Oecologia 170, 586 (2012).
  3. L. Berec, E. Angulo, F. Courchamp, Multiple Allee effects and population management. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22, 185 (2007).
  4. T. C. R. White, Revisiting the ecological Tower of Babel: should the term ‘density dependence’ be abandoned? N. Z. J. Zool., 1 (2013).
  5. B. G. Murray, On density dependence. Oikos 69, 520 (1994).
  6. H. G. Andrewartha, Density-dependent factors in ecology. Nature 183, 200 (1959).
  7. A. J. Nicholson, Density-dependent factors in ecology. Nature 183, 911 (1959).
  8. H. G. Andrewartha, The use of conceptual models in population dynamics. Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Ecology 22, 219 (1957).
  9. A. J. Nicholson, The self-adjustment of populations to change. Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Ecology 22, 153 (1957).
  10. H. M. Regan, M. Colyvan, M. A. Burgman, A taxonomy and treatment of uncertainty for ecology and conservation biology. Ecol. Appl. 12, 618 (2002).
  11. T. M. Blackburn et al., A proposed unified framework for biological invasions. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 26, 333 (2011).
  12. M. Kearney, Habitat, environment and niche: what are we modelling? Oikos 115, 186 (2006).
  13. S. E. Jorgensen, B. Fath, Encyclopedia of Ecology. 5 volumes. S. E. Jorgensen, B. Fath, Eds.,  (Elsevier, Oxford, UK, 2008).
  14. W. J. Sutherland, Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species. Nature 423, 276 (2003).
  15. M. Pautasso, Publication growth in biological sub-fields: patterns, predictability and sustainability. Sustainability 4, 3234 (2012).
  16. K. E. Hodges, Defining the problem: terminology and progress in ecology. Front. Ecol. Environ. 6, 35 (2008).
  17. D. B. Lindenmayer, J. Fischer, Tackling the habitat fragmentation panchreston. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22, 127 (2007).
  18. S. L. Pimm, The complexity and stability of ecosystems. Nature 307, 321 (1984).
  19. M. Schillebeeckx, B. Maricque, C. Lewis, The missing piece to changing the university culture. Nat. Biotechnol. 31, 938 (2013).
  20. B. M. Starzomski et al., Contemporary visions of progress in ecology and thoughts for the future. Ecol. Soc. 9, 14 (2004).
  21. G. E. Belovsky et al., Ten suggestions to strengthen the science of ecology. Bioscience 54, 345 (2004).
  22. D. A. Driscoll, D. B. Lindenmayer, Framework to improve the application of theory in ecology and conservation. Ecol. Monogr. 82, 129 (2012).
  23. D. Vetter, G. Rücker, I. Storch, Meta-analysis: A need for well-defined usage in ecology and conservation biology. Ecosphere 4, art74 (2013).
  24. D. C. Adams, M. S. DiBitetti, C. H. Janson, L. B. Slobodkin, N. Valenzuela, An ”audience effect” for ecological terminology: use and misuse of jargon. Oikos 80, 632 (1997).
  25. J. C. Dauvin, G. Bellan, D. Bellan-Santini, The need for clear and comparable terminology in benthic ecology. Part I. Ecological concepts. Aquatic Conservation-Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 18, 432 (2008).
  26. J. C. Dauvin, G. Bellan, D. Bellan-Santini, The need for clear and comparable terminology in benthic ecology. Part II. Application of the European Directives. Aquatic Conservation-Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 18, 446 (2008).
  27. F. Bazzaz et al., Ecological science and the human predicament. Science 282, 879 (1998).
  28. D. D. Murphy, B. D. Noon, Coping with uncertainty in wildlife biology. J. Wildl. Manage. 55, 773 (1991).
  29. J. R. Weber, C. S. Word, The communication process as evaluative context: what do nonscientists hear when scientists speak? Bioscience 51, 487 (2001).
  30. T. E. Bowman, E. Maibach, M. E. Mann, S. C. Moser, R. C. J. Somerville, Creating a common climate language. Science 324, 36b (2009).
  31. M. E. Hofmann, J. Hinkel, M. Wrobel, Classifying knowledge on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability in Europe for informing adaptation research and decision-making: A conceptual meta-analysis. Global Environ. Change 21, 1106 (2011).
  32. M. C. Ebach, J. J. Morrone, L. R. Parenti, Á. L. Viloria, International Code of Area Nomenclature. J. Biogeogr. 35, 1153 (2008).
  33. G. E. Likens, The ecosystem approach : its use and abuse. O. Kinne, Ed., Excell. Ecol. (Ecology Institute, Oldendorf/Luhe, Germany, 1992).
  34. F. E. Eggleton et al., Report of the committee on nomenclature.  (Ecological Society of America, Cornell, USA, 1952).
  35. H. C. Hanson, J. G. Needham, W. P. Taylor, A. G. Vestal, W. E. Allen, Ecological nomenclature. Science 74, 648 (1931).
  36. S. Knapp, A. Polaszek, M. Watson, Spreading the word. Nature 446, 261 (2007).
  37. G. Cochrane, I. Karsch-Mizrachi, Y. Nakamura, The International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration. Nucleic Acids Res. 39, D15 (2011).
  38. O. J. Reichman, M. B. Jones, M. P. Schildhauer, Challenges and opportunities of open data in ecology. Science 331, 703 (2011).
  39. M. B. Jones, M. P. Schildhauer, O. J. Reichman, S. Bowers, The new bioinformatics: Integrating ecological data from the gene to the biosphere. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37, 519 (2006).
  40. D. M. Choate et al., Integrating theoretical components: a graphical model for graduate students and researchers. Bioscience 62, 594 (2012).
  41. R. M. May, Unanswered questions in ecology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 354, 1951 (1999).



7 responses

2 01 2017
Where do citizens stand on climate change? |

[…] Improving the clarity of language by which we (scientists) communicate with other researchers, and with society as a whole, is one of the most important challenges ecologists and conservation biologists face right now and for the next decades (15) – and represents a major need on educational grounds to handle a conceptually and terminologically complex concept such as ‘climate change’ (16). We will do our best in the coming articles to contribute to ameliorating this type of communication. […]


31 08 2016
Is it useful to categorise disturbances as pulses or presses? | Ecology for a Crowded Planet

[…] is it a pulse disturbance now? All of this results from an imprecise definition, which can lead to serious misunderstandings in ecology. However, this is not an issue that can be solved a better definition. Rather, I think that […]


4 05 2015
Twenty tips for writing a research proposal |

[…] risk of sounding like a broken record, avoid jargon as much as […]


30 09 2014
How to review a scientific paper |

[…] problems are minor. Being a stickler for good grammar and terminology, I always try to point out where writing can be improved. I think it’s an overlooked element […]


28 07 2014
Time to put significance out of its misery |

[…] life and their subsequent misapplication, many terms no longer have a precise meaning. Given that good scientific writing must ideally strive to employ the language of precision, transparency and …, now-useless terminology should be completely expunged from our […]


25 02 2014
Eric Nicholson

CEN is a great initiative. I hope the global ecological research sector eventually gets on board with this. Keep up the good work Salva!


25 02 2014
John Jennings

Many leading hymenopterists participated in HymAToL, a project funded by the National Science Foundation under the “Assembling the Tree Of Life” initiative. Part of this resulted in the development of an ontology which has made life much easier for us hymenopterists.

Surely ecologists can get their act together.

See: Seltmann KC, Yoder MJ, Mikó I, Forshage M, Bertone MA, Agosti D, Austin AD, Balhoff JP, Borowiec ML, Brady SG, Broad GR, Brothers DJ, Burks RA, Buffington ML, Campbell HM, Dew KJ, Ernst AF, Fernández-Triana JL, Gates MW, Gibson GAP, Jennings JT, Johnson NF, Karlsson D, Kawada R, Krogmann L, Kula RR, Mullins PL, Ohl M, Rasmussen C, Ronquist F, Schulmeister S, Sharkey MJ, Talamas E, Tucker E, Vilhelmsen L, Ward PS, Wharton RA, & Deans AR, 2012, A hymenopterists’ guide to the Hymenoptera Anatomy Ontology: utility, clarification, and future directions. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 27, 67–88.

Also see


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